Flush with pride

  Technology that allows Singapore to reclaim used tap and flushing water will move the nation closer to water self-sufficiency. But will it wash with the masses?
Far Eastern Economic Review
September 26, 2002

By Trish Saywell/SINGAPORE

Water issue may yet leave a bad taste in the mouth, Newater or not
IN A TELEVISED MEETING with Singapore's youth aired on National Day, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong invited teens in the audience to taste Newater--reclaimed and treated used water from the city state's sinks and sewers. As studio staff handed out small plastic bottles, the TV cameras zeroed in on the youngsters' faces, as each dutifully unscrewed the lids and took a few tentative sips. The subtext was not lost on the audience: Even teenagers are willing to face up to Singapore's harsh political and environmental realities and align their tastebuds with the country's national interests.

Singapore isn't the first country to seek a sustainable water supply. A variation of the processes used to treat the reclaimed water that Singapore will use has been employed in parts of the United States for more than 20 years. In Southern California's Orange County, for instance, high-quality water reclaimed from treated used water has been injected into the ground water since 1976.

But in Singapore, plans to drink recycled tap and flushing water have taken on profound significance. Not only will Newater, as it is called here, put Singapore on a more equal footing with Malaysia--which currently supplies Singapore with half its water needs. But it will also put Singapore on the map as one of the first countries in the world, after the US, prepared to float the Newater idea with the public.

The moves are particularly laudable, given the World Bank's repeated warnings that dwindling water supplies will inhibit growth globally. Last year the United Nations warned that competition for water supplies and the possibility of conflict over sources of water could get worse. Estimates from the UN and the U.S. government show that by 2015, at least 40 percent of the world's population will live in countries where it is difficult to get enough water to satisfy basic needs.

Initially, Singapore will use Newater for industrial use--selling it to the many wafer-fabrication plants on the island and for use in air-conditioning systems.

But it eventually plans to introduce the water into the country's reservoirs and water supply and deliver it as tap water. Two Newater plants, to be set up by the Public Utilities Board, or PUB, will be operational by next year and two more will come on stream in the coming years.

The treated used water undergoes a series of stringent purification and treatment processes, including advanced microfiltration to remove suspended solids, bacteria, viruses and protozoa; reverse osmosis to eliminate dissolved salts, organics, viruses and other microbes; and ultraviolet disinfection.

An international panel of experts has proclaimed Newater safe to drink and cleaner than tap water. But the question is, can Newater--already awash in nicknames like "poo water"--rise above the wisecracks and wash with the people?

The government--which regulates everything in this squeaky-clean city state from chewing gum to permits for public speaking at Speakers' Corner--is trying its best to get Singaporeans to move beyond the "yuck factor" and recognize that Newater is not only safe to drink, but will enhance national security too.

The public-education offensive began last month in the run-up to National Day, Singapore's 37th birthday. At the National Day rally on August 9, 60,000 promotional bottles of the water were handed out to participants. Through August and September, a Newater television documentary was aired. And soon the public will be able to see first-hand how Newater is produced: The PUB is planning to build a visitor centre at one of the Newater plants.

Recent photos in the local press, meanwhile, have shown a sweaty Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong swigging Newater after a tennis game and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew quaffing a bottle at a dinner reception. The not-so-subtle message: Patriots will drink Newater if they have the country's best interests at heart.

So far at least, pragmatic Singaporeans are swallowing that message whole. After all, Singaporeans are sick of occasional threats from some Malaysians to turn off the taps and the use of water supplies as a bargaining chip in negotiations on other sensitive bilateral issues. Malaysia also wants to hike the price of water it is selling to Singapore under water pacts signed in 1961 and 1962.

Malaysians view the existing agreements as unfavourable; Singapore buys raw water from the state of Johor for three Malaysian cents (less than one US cent) for every 1000 gallons and sells the same amount of treated water back to Malaysia for 50 Malaysian cents. A second round of talks on outstanding bilateral issues between the two countries ended on September 3 without resolution--mainly because a pact couldn't be reached on water prices.

Newater, together with purchases from Malaysia, desalination and rainwater from catchment areas, will provide enough water for Singapore to meet its needs after 2011, when one of two water-supply agreements with Malaysia expires. The second water agreement ends in 2061. Newater "will make a very sensitive issue with Malaysia less sensitive," Deputy Prime Minister Lee told television viewers.

"In the long term the water issue will be desecuritized," notes Timothy Huxley, an expert on Southeast Asian security at the University of Hull in England.

"Malaysia can use its water for other purposes and Singapore's dependence is lessened."

But beyond the politics, Newater is popular at home because it reinforces the perception of a nimble-footed Singapore that is ready to adapt to changing circumstances and contemplate the unthinkable. "Newater shows a certain can-do spirit," Lee told his youthful audience in the show televised on National Day.

Ultimately, Newater marks a more self-confident Singapore willing to break with old ways in search of new solutions. "It is in keeping with other Singaporean moves in foreign policy, for instance, where Singapore has been willing to push ahead with path-breaking policies such as its bilateral free-trade agreements," says a local academic who asked not to be named. "These were poorly received at first, but are now finding more supporters in the region."